For Sinners Only


Last Wednesday night I listened as Von Matthews taught an excellent class on the virtue of humility. Somewhere near the beginning he commented that humility is hard to define. Then he asked the group sitting around each table to come up with a definition of humility. The struggle (and the silence) that followed proved the truth of his words. So I decided to check it out for myself. The dictionary defines humility as the “art or state of being humble,” which isn’t much help. A check of the word “humble” revealed that the word comes from a Latin word that means “low” and is related to the word for earth or dirt, humus. This is one of those cases where a word can be best defined by its opposite, as in “not arrogant” or “not proud” or “not big-headed.” The thesaurus lists as synonyms “simple” and “unobtrusive,” but it also gives us “ignoble” (a word we rarely use today) and “base,” “subdued,” and even “unwashed,” which is not a positive thought. Someone at our table offered a definition borrowed from Andrew Murray: Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking less about yourself. We all agreed that was a helpful insight because we’ve all known people who seemed to be excessively concerned to help you but somehow, in the end, it all somehow came back to them and their agenda. The truly humble person does what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and he does it without worrying about himself one way or the other. Then someone else commented that Moses was called a meek or humble man in Numbers 13. In fact, he is called the most humble man on earth. The only problem with that is that Moses hardly fits our typical understanding of humility. The biblical text presents him as a dynamic, fearless leader, a man with strong emotions that sometimes led him to say and do foolish things. He doesn’t fit the image of a “meek and mild” gentle man and he certainly doesn’t seem “ignoble” or “unwashed.” In what sense was Moses humble? Answer: He knew who he was and he knew who God was, and he never forgot who was God and who was not. Remember, Moses killed an Egyptian and then fled to Midian for 40 years. He had to put up with constant complaining from his people. And at a crucial moment of his life, he disobeyed the Lord by striking the rock because he was angry with the people. For that careless act, he was banned from entering the Promised Land. And yet he was a humble man. There is a lesson here if we will take it. Only people who know they are sinners can be truly humble. No one else need apply.

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